Disabled kids don't deserve to be left out of school sports lessons

I come from a very sporty family and my mum’s dad was a boxer, so it’s always been very important to me to keep active.

I was at school in the late 80s and early 90s and I feel very lucky that I was never left out in PE lessons because of my cerebral palsy. No one told me that I couldn’t play sports with non-disabled people. 

Sure, I’d get hurt sometimes and I’d go home and my mum would know about it – but she expected me to play everything. If I wasn’t doing the same sports as everyone else then she would have been on the phone to complain.

Without taking part, I know that I would have felt ‘different’ and it probably would have affected the other pupils’ relationships with me and how they treated me too.

I’m clearly an exception and my teachers were very progressive and knew exercise benefited me and my mobility, so didn’t hinder that.

It led to me finding passions like wheelchair basketball.

I’ll never forget how nervous I was as I rolled onto the court for my first ever away game in Northampton at 14 years old.

As a defensive player, it was my job to block the opposing team from scoring and as soon as that whistle blew, I came alive. The rush of winning back possession to help set up my team for a basket was electric – not to mention the camaraderie I felt throughout.

I was playing for the Coventry Crusaders. You didn’t have to be disabled to play on the team, as non-disabled players are strapped into their wheelchairs, which meant my mates from school joined. 

As a team, we travelled all over the country and even had ex-professional players from America come and coach us.

We’d train five times a week together, and play on weekends – looking back, it was a time that shaped my personality for the better and prepared me for many of life’s challenges, like being independent and resilient.

Sadly, I think these days there are less opportunities for disabled children to get involved in sports from an early age; schools are less inclined to take any risks, and parents are more cautious.

It means they’re missing out. How do you know how good you could be if you don’t even get a chance to try something?

When I speak to people in the ‘Cerebral Palsy virtual café’ – which is an online café run by the disability equality charity Scope and Cerebral Palsy sport, set up for people to meet and combat isolation during the pandemic – I find that many younger disabled people were told to ‘go and read a book’ during PE lessons in school.

About 80% of those I have spoken to were excluded from taking part in sports and I think things have got worse. These guys are only in their twenties now, so were at school in the last decade or so. It’s very hard for them.

Since becoming a dad myself, I know and appreciate that you worry about your kids – and we are more used to a culture of caution now – with so much red tape around everything.

But disabled people being forced to sit out during PE at school will see young people never getting to try or achieve new things. Everyone starts sport at the bottom and you only get better and get good at sports by trying them.

My 12-year-old daughter is very good at football and we’ve always instilled the importance of sport for confidence and keeping healthy. She found her own voice in football, and it taught her self-esteem.

I know just how important sport and keeping active is for myself. When the pandemic hit, my motivation slumped and it’s been hard to get it back. Especially as I had been playing wheelchair rugby before the pandemic for a local team, on top of my normal training routines.

As a wheelchair user, I have struggled after 16 months in lockdown – like I know so many disabled people have. My legs were affected a lot as I noticed they had become weaker, and although I kept the strength in my arms from using my wheelchair, I really found it hard to make myself do weights at home.

Scope has surveyed more than 1,000 disabled people about their experiences of physical activity and sport since the start of the pandemic last year.

I hope everybody will be able to do whatever sport they want and that equipment for people like me will be cheaper and more easily available

Almost half (48%) of respondents have become less active since the pandemic, with many facing barriers to exercise due to shielding or fears about the risk of catching Covid-19.

Of those asked, 42% said their mental health has worsened as a result of being less active, and 51% said that their mobility, dexterity or movement has taken a dip.

I really do believe that a lack of movement and sports facilities during lockdown mean there is going to be an imminent ‘health tsunami’, which will highlight the damage the pandemic has done.

The research also found that 91% of disabled people want to be more active, but with shielding, gyms being inaccessible and a lack of access to physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, disabled people have really struggled during this pandemic.

I know people who are now permanently in their wheelchairs, when they were able to stand up and walk for periods before the lockdowns happened. It makes me feel terrible and it’s a big worry.

There are still so many barriers that we face to even get into sports and into gyms in the first place. The less welcoming a gym is, the fewer disabled people they will see through their doors – and there starts a vicious circle, and no catalyst for change.

I had to try out five gyms before I found one where I was able to use all the facilities and the instructors were clued up enough to ask me about my impairment and find out what it is I wanted from my training.

This is combined with making sure the changing rooms and toilets are accessible. This needs to change and more conversations need to happen between organisations that work with disabled people.

In the future, I hope everybody will be able to do whatever sport they want and that equipment for people like me will be cheaper and more easily available.

In the meantime, disabled people will continue to show their entrepreneurial spirit by starting exercise classes online – like a disabled friend of mine, who is a personal trainer.

I want young disabled people at school to have more conversations between teachers and parents about the importance of physical activity and how they can make sure it’s part of any curriculum.

There needs to be an open and honest discourse from the start.

Scope’s Make It Count campaign aims to inspire people to get active in their own homes and will take place alongside the Paralympics – between 24 August to 5 September. For more information about the campaign, visit Scope’s website here.

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